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All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

What’s in a name?

So, how do you refer to people who reside behind bars? What do you call them? Criminal, convict, offender, felon, super-predator, lawbreaker, delinquent, inmate, prisoner?

Our board chair, Russ Bloem, has been insistent that we reconsider the terms used for referring to someone who is incarcerated. This week we get some guidance from the Marshall Project, which has developed a policy on what to call someone behind bars. In a prison survey taken by the MP, 38% preferred being labeled an “incarcerated person,” 23% were OK with the term “prisoner,” but only 10% wanted to be called an “inmate.” 

I thought the Marshall Project gave an excellent explanation as to why they were taking a look at this issue: 

It’s important to note that our policy is not an attempt to exonerate anyone or minimize the impact of crime on people victimized by it. It is designed to promote precision and accuracy and to convey the humanity of people who are routinely dehumanized by the media and society 

So, here’s the Marshall Project’s new policy: the words “inmates” and “convicts” are never used! The preferred term is “incarcerated,” next in line is “imprisoned,” followed by “people or person in prison.”

After 20 years in this business, I’m thinking Russ and the Marshall Project are on the right track. We should be more considerate when choosing titles for those behind bars.

In my conversations with the incarcerated over the years, I have found that many are much less sensitive than others over what they are called. One of our clients bitterly complained to me about being called an “inmate” back in the early days of our formation. I asked others behind bars, and many just shrugged. They really didn’t care.

In all fairness, the Marshall Project survey wasn’t all that scientific, either. I think they polled about 200 incarcerated persons. 

The thing is, county jails also fit under the MP’s umbrella, and according to their statistics about 70% of people in jail have not yet been convicted! If the word “inmate” implies guilt, calling these people inmates isn’t fair at all. 

Really, it’s all a matter of dignity, and I and our team respect that. "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27. 

This statement from UNICEF underscores the importance of being sensitive when using labels referring to the incarcerated:

Every human being deserves respect, dignity and equality. No matter who they are. No matter where they live. No matter the colour of their skin.

The perpetrator of a heinous crime, you, and me: All created in the image of God.




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Monday, April 12, 2021

The real message behind problem solving: Someone cares!

I had an idea for a radio show back in the 1970s. Call-in shows were popular on local radio, but they all sounded alike. My idea was to be active instead of passive, to help listeners solve problems. We labeled the show Problem Solvers, and I hosted it along with my assistant Barb Werly.                                                                                                                          

People could call with a problem. We and our listeners would then try to solve it. We did not limit the type of problem. If necessary, we would make an outgoing call to get an answer. 

I didn’t create the show for ratings...I did it to help people, but the ratings followed! It was one of the most popular mid-morning shows on west Michigan radio, emanating from our little 500-watt transmitter in our small town! 

That’s what is happening with HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 20 years ago, we started out just helping those who claimed wrongful conviction. We found we couldn’t limit our assistance to one category. Calls were coming in about problems with health care, abuse, Parole Board issues, etc. We had to help. And so, over the years, HFP became “the problem solvers.” 

-People were worried about mail tampering, because the Parole Board was no longer acknowledging receipt of their commutation applications. An HFP message to the Governor, and the policy was changed! 

-A client believed a medical examiner had lied on an autopsy report, but he couldn’t get his hands on the document because our state won’t allow prisoners to file FOIA requests. We did it for him, and he was right! He’s elated, and has new hope. 

Sometimes family members call. 

A young man had been diagnosed with a serious case of diabetes while in a private hospital, but when returned to prison he didn’t receive his critically needed insulin. HFP stepped in, and he got it. 

An elderly grandmother was dying and had hoped to speak with her grandson by telephone one last time, but his prison telephone privileges had been revoked. HFP persuaded the warden to grant an exception. 

It’s what we do. 

But this is even more important! Our prompt response to 50-75 calls a day, 7 days a week, conveys this message: Someone will listen. Someone cares!

We will and we do. 

"Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference." – Kevin Heath


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Heroes venture behind bars!

Every time I drive past a major intersection here in Grand Haven, I get a warm feeling. There’s a big skilled nursing facility on that corner, and I’m sure the past year has been a stressful time for both occupants and staff. But here’s the thing I like: There are signs in the lawn all around the building saying Heroes work here! 

The pandemic has helped us become aware of all kinds of heroes. In addition to the doctors, nurses and first responders, we have found heroes who kept our grocery stores open, for example; who kept public transportation alive; and yes, who hauled away our garbage. All kinds of unsung heroes. 

I’ve been thinking about this subject since last weekend when I heard one of my favorite country gospel groups, The Isaacs, singing their song called Heroes. The theme is that you may not know their names, but many everyday people are heroes all the same. 

Today I’m going to do something about it. I’m surrounded by a group of heroes, and I’m going to tell the world about it. 

Here’s the story. 

Last month, HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS responded to a record number of calls for help: 2,131! That boils down to 70 messages a day to our office via email, snail mail and telephone, 7 days a week for the month of March! 

To expand on that a little more, just a couple years ago, in 2019, we responded to a total of 6,800 calls. So far this year, we’ve already received 5,800 calls! 

Some of the requests for assistance are more urgent than others, but I assure you these are not frivolous matters. And our policy is, and always has been, that Michigan inmates seeking help from us will get a prompt response. We may not be able to help them right away, but they won’t be ignored. 

Obviously, to handle that kind of volume. It takes a team. 

So, here goes. To the office gang---Susie, Sarah, Melissa, Ted, and Matt; and to our group of marvelous volunteers--- Bob 1 and Bob 2, Jen, Taylor, Rebekah, Harley, Bill, Ron, Kathy, Paul, Gabriella, and Heather, I dedicate this chorus from the Isaacs: 

He's a hero and she's a hero

It doesn't matter that nobody knows their name

They keep on givin' to make life worth livin'

Might go unnoticed but they're heroes just the same 

Representing many men and women behind bars in Michigan, inmate Eddie summed it up best in his email message to HFP this week: In case you didn't know, you are appreciated!

 


 

 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Dave and I have an Easter gift for you!

This is a very special Easter gift! 

The following piece was written by a very special friend, David Schelhaas. Dave is a retired college English professor who now lives in Iowa. Many years ago he lived here in our part of the state, taught at Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, and was a charter member of HIS MEN…a singing group that I founded in 1972. 

He’s not only a fine singer, but an excellent writer. I invite you to savor this little gem on Easter Sunday, 2021: 

Thinking He Was the Gardener 

Thinking he was the gardener

she did not recognize him,

eyes blurred with tears, the weight

of grief breaking her heart.

 

Now, all these centuries later, we find

her misidentification of him as gardener

happily apt.

For he is the gardener

of our lives and our salvation---

planter, waterer, weeder, feeder, completer.

 

He is the gardener

of all green and growing things, of

grasses, flowers and trees. The great sequoias,

redwoods, and cedars of the world bow down to him

who bends to tend the almost invisible lettuce seeds

planted this morning in my garden.

 

He cares for all creatures, plants

the conies, those “feeble folk,”

in houses of stone to protect them, gives

water for the wild donkeys, delights

in the antics of leviathan.

 

Before time was, he cast stars

like seeds into the endless

furrows of space and still

charts their growth over seasons

that linger on for eons.

 

Dear, sad Mary, one word and she knew him,

yet all eternity may not be time enough

for her to comprehend him.

 

Thank you, David. 

Christ, the gardener, is risen. He is risen, indeed!

 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Holy Week means hope for prisoners

Everybody loves a “second chance.” Unless it’s for a prisoner. Then we have “second thoughts.” 

Prosecutors and victims’ rights groups argue that those who lost their lives in heinous crimes won’t get a second chance. Why, then, should the perpetrator? 

And so, unlike the country of Norway where they believe that every life is redeemable, all persons can be rehabilitated, and there is no such thing as life without parole...unlike that remarkable nation, we love life sentences and even the death penalty! Punishment and retribution reduce crime, right? (It hasn’t worked yet!) 

But then, in Lent, comes the poignant story of Dismas. 

And all protestants say, “Who the heck is Dismas?” Many Catholics do, as well. 

Well, that’s the name that was given to the penitent thief on the cross, one of the guys getting crucified next to Jesus, 

Only Dr. Luke publishes this story. 

One criminal taunted Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” And then the other thief rebuked him, saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus told him, “This day you will be with me in paradise” 

The powerful lesson: It’s never too late. 

On March 25, the Catholic Church observes the Feast of St. Dismas. I like that! As a person who works and mingles with inmates, the story has deep meaning for me. It should also have deep meaning for every person behind bars. 

The message of Easter is not just for those of us who are and have been long-time followers of Jesus. This guy never saw Jesus perform a miracle, never read a word of the Old Testament prophets, and was at death’s door. Yet, at the last minute, he chose to make a U-turn.

There’s a sermon here, of course...deep spiritual truths. But there’s broader meaning as well for the incarcerated. It’s not easy being judged by the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. It’s terrible to be locked up for a crime you didn’t even commit. We cannot even imagine the huge challenge in attempting to get a fresh start. This story offers hope.

 Every second a seeker can start over,

 For his life’s mistakes

 Are initial drafts

And not the final version.

-Sri Chinmoy 

Holy Week is Hope Week. For all of us. Especially those behind bars.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Maurice H. Carter, born 3/29/44. Little did his mother know!

It’s funny how the mind works. 

My brother Maurice’s birthday is here. I’m thinking how much I miss him. My mind is flooded with memories. And I’m also thinking of his mother. I used to visit his elderly mom in her tiny, ramshackle home in a deteriorating Gary, Indiana neighborhood. 

She loved those visits! She loved her son! 

And as I’m thinking about a mother’s love for her son, and her hopes and dreams for the lad, a song runs through my mind. It’s one of my favorite Christmas pieces, introduced to the public exactly 20 years ago: Mary, Did You Know? 

To be clear, I’m NOT attempting to compare Maurice to Jesus, or Mrs. Elizabeth Fowler to the blessed virgin. 

I love the poignant questions to Mary, penned by Mark Lowry and set to music by Buddy Greene: Did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water, would save our sons and daughters? Did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man, will calm the storm with his hand? Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God? 

I can’t match that kind of stuff when talking about Maurice. But I’ll bet good money that his dear, little mother had no idea that her kind and gentle son---born and raised in poverty, falsely accused and incarcerated for nearly half his life for a crime he did not commit---would make such an incredible impact. 

She could not have known that his story would appear in book form and in a stage play. She never would have guessed that the little organization, founded on her son’s dream, would grow to become a leading prisoner advocacy agency in our state...that because of Maurice, HFP’s team members are compassionately touching the lives of thousands of Michigan inmates every day! 

In fact, his wrongful conviction became a rallying cry around the world. 

Phil Campbell, Toronto attorney, was paying tribute to my efforts at the time of Maurice Carter’s death, but his sentiments are accurate: 

The official record shows Maurice to be convicted of attempted murder. But in the eyes of the public, and of many more who studied the case, he achieved exoneration. When you met Maurice he was a forgotten man; he died a celebrity. When you met him he was reviled as a dangerous criminal; he died a symbol of wronged innocence. When you met him he had no real friends; he died surrounded by love. 

I conclude with this statement by Phil: 

The qualities he displayed during the bleakest years imaginable are answer enough to his accusers.

Happy Birthday, my brother Maurice. RIP!



Wednesday, March 24, 2021

On why we tell you what goes on behind bars

I have an announcement to make. And a confession. 

The announcement: I have a new book in the works...I’m hoping it will be released in a few months. The confession is that I’m rather ashamed of some of its content. 

Let me explain. 

As an octogenarian, I have had three distinctly different careers. My first career was that of radio newsman, and as I concluded nearly 30 years in the business, I owned and operated Radio Station WGHN right here in Grand Haven, Michigan. 

As a local newsman/broadcaster, I felt it was my duty to air editorials on local issues. Unlike articles and editorials in the newspaper, which can and do get saved, many things on the air later disappear. 

A former employee enjoyed those editorials, and saved copies of some 300 of them, aired between 1964 and 1978. With the kind assistance of Grand Haven’s Historical Museum and Loutit Library, we’re assembling more than 80 from that collection into a fine book that accurately reflects the social history of our community during that era. 

I’m very proud of this book. My positions on some issues, however, make me ashamed. Based on my life experiences, those opinions seemed quite valid back then. Cops and prosecutors were seldom if ever wrong. Arrested folks were obviously “bad apples.” Problems involving young people were obviously the fault of the teenagers. Certainly not the adults. 

My opinions were colored by these inhibiting factors: I had been a radio newsman in three predominantly white communities; I had never met a prisoner; I had never parented teenagers. 

My life, and my opinions, are different today. Now my friends and acquaintances have a variety of skin colors, and many of them are, or were, in prison. Today, while I greatly respect those persons in law enforcement and the courts who do their jobs fairly and honorably, I am fully aware of those who misuse their power and authority. And today, I can honestly say that the joys of raising kids through the teen years far outweighed the challenges. 

When I founded HFP 20 years ago, the old newsman in me demanded that we tell stories. Only then would people know what it’s like behind bars. Many reports were shocking. All were enlightening. One day a friend asked if I was making them up! 

The average citizen has no awareness of prison conditions and problems. As a former newsman and founder of an agency that helps and promotes humanity for inmates, I encourage our team to face that challenge and communicate, communicate, communicate! We’ll keep telling you the stories. 

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll watch for the new book. 

And I hope you’ll pray for the incarcerated.



Saturday, March 20, 2021

On meeting “deep hunger” behind bars

When a memorial service was held for my mother, our family was astounded at the number of people who showed up whom we didn’t know or recognize. As we circulated among the crowd it became apparent that “little things” done by my mom became “big things” in the minds of many. 

She was great at sending a little hand-written note, baking a pie for someone, or inviting a needy soul over for a cuppa. 

Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat ildan said, “Without water drops, there can be no oceans; without steps, there can be no stairs; without little things, there can be no big things!” 

I could never fill my mother’s shoes. I did learn some important lessons from her, though, and those have filtered down into Humanity for Prisoners. And because our CEO, son Matt, has some of the same genes, we’re on the same page when it comes to compassion. 

With nearly 2,000 calls a month coming into our office, many are predictable. Helping prisoners file requests under the Freedom of Information Act and helping those needing improved medical care will occupy nearly 50% of our time. 

But then there are the unusual ones that might seem small or insignificant. 

A long-time friend of ours serving time at Women’s Huron Valley asks if HFP can help a woman in her unit who is illiterate and can speak only Spanish. The woman would like to file an application seeking a commutation of her sentence, but the obstacles are huge. 

The father of a prisoner who has been denied telephone privileges asks if we can arrange an exception of the rule so his son may have one final conversation with his dying grandmother. She’s under hospice care, and won’t last long. 

A prisoner in Saginaw CF asks what we can do to help an 83-year-old man in his unit. The poor old guy suffers from dementia, he soils himself, and nobody seems to really give a damn. Nobody, that is, except this caring prisoner, and our caring team. 

If you had a loved one behind bars, for whatever reason, I think you’d be pleased to know that calls like this get top priority in our office. 

Dr. David Schuringa, as our consultant some years ago, said, “Nobody does what you do!  Nobody wants to do what you do!” 

I love this quote by theologian Frederick Buechner: 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.

 



Wednesday, March 17, 2021

No sunlight for prisoners. Not in this state!

In that this is Sunshine Week, a time when we are supposed to celebrate transparency in our government, we sadly report this: Michigan ranks last among all states in government transparency! 

The shameful fact is that both the Governor of the State of Michigan and our State Legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. And, whenever you and I hear that, our first question should be: What are they hiding? 

But even more annoying to me is this: Michigan prisoners are not allowed to file requests under this act! Ours is only one of a handful of states with this ridiculous rule. 

Let me give you a couple examples of how prisoners can use the act. 

Many prisoners need “newly discovered evidence” to get their cases reopened. That can be accomplished with FOIA requests to prosecutors and police. Michigan won’t let them do it! 

Prisoners rejected by the Parole Board would like to know reasons behind that decision, so they can work on improvement. The only way to find how the Parole Board voted and why is to file a FOIA request. Michigan won’t let them do it! 

There are numerous other issues that require support by desire legal documents. 

The state argues that many prisoner requests are frivolous and responding to those requests is too costly. And so, while the law says all citizens are entitled to such information, our legislature adopted an amendment which says, in effect, that prisoners are not citizens! 

Some lawyers and some agencies will file FOIA requests on behalf of prisoners, but they charge for it. But, in many cases, lack of funds is the very reason why prisoners want to take this action on their own. 

I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS provides this service to many Michigan prisoners, and we do it at no charge. Inmates are asked to pay expenses for copies. 

Last year we filed more than 500 requests for prisoners! This year, we’ve filed more than 150 already! These were legitimate requests, not frivolous, according to our team. Response to, and support for, our assistance in this field is overwhelming! But, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

There must be some way to reach a compromise, whereby some restrictions remain in place, but whereby prisoners are not denied “due process.” 

Sunshine Week is the perfect time for our lawmakers to rethink the issue.

 

Monday, March 15, 2021

I’ll tell you where you can take your “sunshine!”

This is Sunshine Week, a week when we are supposed to celebrate the Freedom of Information Act, something that actually holds our public officials accountable. In all states, that is, except Michigan. Our state, affectionally referred to as Pure Michigan, ranks last among states for government transparency! That according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Here are three damning points you should be aware of, during Sunshine Week:


-We exempt the Governor’s Office from disclosure of public information. She’s a Democrat.

-We exempt the state legislature as well. Both houses are Republican.

-Prisoners in Michigan are not allowed to file FOIA requests. 

In his Sunday newspaper column, MLive Vice President of Content John Hilner describes barriers his reporters encounter when they try to get information. I have personally heard a public official in my county boast about how tough the FOIA Coordinator makes it for those filing requests. 

And our office is keenly aware of that problem because we file hundreds of FOIA requests on behalf of Michigan prisoners, often meeting resistance. The law states that citizens have the right to know, but in 1994 the Michigan Legislature OK’d an amendment to say that prisoners are excluded from FOIA. In other words, they are not citizens. 

Michigan is one of only a few states that will not allow inmates to file FOIA requests. 

Our friend Dan Manville takes our side. And he’s well-qualified to do so. Manville is an associate clinical professor at the Michigan State University law school, where he directs the Civil Rights Clinic. He has plenty of first-hand experience with this issue, as a former inmate and jailhouse lawyer himself. 

He gives this example of prisoners being hurt by that provision. When Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, federal law requires prison officials to investigate allegations of sexual assault by guards or inmates. BUT, when inmates submit a complaint, after the investigation is complete, the prisoner is only given a one-page document that tells them whether or not there was sufficient evidence to support the complaint. If a prisoner wants to file a lawsuit, without FOIA they're usually unable to determine whether or not they have a strong enough case to go to court. 

What it boils down to is this. Whether you’re inside or outside of prison bars, there’s a whole lot your state officials don’t want you to know. 

And that leads to this Sunshine Week question: What are you going to do about it?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Jim Crow is alive and well!

This week we remember a terrible incident that occurred in Alabama. Hundreds formed a march to Birmingham hoping to ensure the right of Black people to vote. That was in March, 1965. White cops used vicious dogs and fire hoses to show those folks just who was boss. 

Not to be outdone in U.S. history books, the State Senate in neighboring Georgia---exactly 50 years later---voted to pass legislation containing a slew of restrictions to suppress voting rights. The House is sure to follow suit soon. Too many Black people voting. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an avalanche of voter suppression bills being introduced around our country. And believe me, they’re not designed to keep white middle-classed citizens like me from voting! 

Which begs the question I ask time and again: Just how much progress have we really made in leveling the playing field for people of color? 

I recently read something in THE MARSHALL PROJECT that prompts my question. Take a look at this:

White children were released from juvenile detention at a far higher rate than their Black peers during the early stages of the pandemic, new data reveals. Since the pandemic, younger people of color have also been detained longer in juvenile jails. The racial gap is widening even though teenagers in many jurisdictions were arrested less often in 2020 and incarceration rates for juveniles remain at or near generational lows. 

That led me to scroll through daily briefings from THE MARSHALL PROJECT to look for any other headlines indicating lack of progress in our treatment of blacks. 

Well, let’s see. 

-The Minneapolis trial of a former police officer accused of killing George Floyd last year. 

-Four stories spinning from the white supremacist attack on the nation’s Capitol. 

-New York:  An officer caught on camera pepper-spraying a Black woman as she held her 3-year-old child. 

-New York, again: City police commissioner Dermot Shea apologizes for the NYPD’s relentless mistreatment of communities of color. 

-From the FBI: White supremacists plan to continue to infiltrate law enforcement agencies and the military to gain tactical training. 

-In Louisiana: A Black sheriff’s deputy died by suicide sitting in his patrol car...distraught, he said, about police violence and racial injustice. 

-And finally, circling back to Georgia again: Republican lawmakers want to prosecute people for bringing food and water to fellow citizens waiting in line for hours to vote. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, on August 14, 1957: 

"We have come a long, long way, but we have a long way to go.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

A year ago everything changed; nothing changed!

It was exactly one year ago. Up until that specific date, no one except medical practitioners in the operating room ever gave thought to wearing a mask. 

Now, all of us do it, all of the time. We don’t shake hands anymore. We don’t stand close to each other. 

That was the dramatic change. What didn’t change in the least is our attitude toward and our treatment of Michigan prisoners. Same old same old. 

One would think that, in the midst of an international pandemic, extraordinary measures would be taken to make sure staff didn’t bring in the disease. After all, restrictions were immediately enforced banning visitation by family, friends, and volunteers. The bug would have to come in somehow, right? Therefore, no outsiders allowed, period. But. the state's system was flawed. 

There’s no need to outline the train wreck that followed. I’m not convinced that many of us really care...we’ve got our own health and welfare to worry about. But, for the record... 

There are 35,000 people incarcerated in Michigan state prisons...more than 25,000 have had COVID. 3,600 cases among staff have been reported. Some fear there are more, but the state reports that at least 135 prisoners have died. More than 30 of them were friends/clients of HFP. Sad story after sad story filtered in to our office. Helpless, we could only pray. 

Deaths occurred among prison staff as well. So far, at least 4. 

Then came the vaccine. A God-send! 

Were prisoners among those granted priority status for the shots? YES, in some states. NO, in Michigan! 

Having grown accustomed to low interest in prisoners under the past regime, we falsely hoped that a new Governor from the other side of the aisle would make a difference. Nada. While we appreciate many of the stands this Governor has taken, her attitude toward prisoners is disappointing. Based on her interest to date in clemency for deserving inmates, I guess this should come as no surprise. 

So, while all of us face world much differently these days---wearing masks and such, some things never change. Not when it comes to our prisoners. 

May that day still come.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

 II Corinthians 4:18

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Transgender prisoners. Created in the image of God?

Transgender prisoners are on my mind. 

We’re hearing some positive news about transgender people these days. Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order allowing transgender people to serve in the military. In fact, on his first day in office the President reinstated protections for gender identity that had been earlier curbed. 

But progress for this group of people (all created in the image of God) has been slow. For example, on the day Biden signed that order, 2,100 miles away conservative legislators in Montana advanced a law to ban transgender youth from competing in girls’ sports. 

What does it mean to be transgender? 

Transgender people are persons whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth. When we're born, a doctor usually says that we're male or female based on what our bodies look like. Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth. 

My intent today, with this column, is to focus on transgender prisoners. Can you even begin to imagine the problems these people face? 

The National Center for Transgender Equality says: 

Transgender people in prison are exposed to horrific rates of abuse by both staff and their fellow inmates, facing physical and sexual assault at much higher rates than their counterparts. As the USTS found, transgender people are ten times as likely to be sexually assaulted by their fellow inmates and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by staff. 

Now I’m going to share something with you that makes me very proud. HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS recently signed up its 40th transgender client, a resident of the Michigan prison system! We’re here for them, and they know it! 

Transgender prisoners are too frequently targeted for violence and abuse. Sadly, some of that violence and abuse comes from the very authorities entrusted with their safety. 

Transgender prisoners also face numerous other challenges behind bars, including denials of medical care and lengthy stays in solitary confinement. 

When a prisoner comes to HFP for help, we don’t check his or her rap sheet first to see what kind of crime sent them to a cage. We don’t screen for color, beliefs, or gender identity. That prisoner has a name and a problem. Our response is to care, and then to help if we can. 

I love Psalm 139. These words in verse 14 fit our discussion today: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 

I found this touching quote by a struggling transgender Christian, who referred to that Psalm: 

God made me transgender; that is the way that it is. He did not make a mistake, for it was in His plans that I am who I am.



Saturday, February 20, 2021

Speaking of solitary confinement, Albert holds the record for life in the hole!

The problem with writing about a subject like solitary confinement is that sometimes I can’t let it go. 

Just a few days ago I posted a piece exposing shameful solitary confinement numbers in Michigan, now I’m back again, like a bad penny. 

I bumped into a story in the Guardian US, an on-line British newspaper. It told about an old guy who spent almost 40 years in solitary confinement! And this happened in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison where, for years, some religious leaders touted how Christianity was making a difference in improving the lives of prisoners. 

Former Warden Burl Cain had invited the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to set up a Bible college in the prison. Other states, upon hearing Warden Cain’s claims of success, followed suit. Right here in western Michigan, Calvin Theological Seminary has been sending students to Angola for more than a decade. Calvin University and Calvin Seminary now operate a for-credit college program in Ionia, Michigan. 

But back to Angola... 

Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for Guardian US, wrote a compelling piece about a former prisoner named Albert Woodfox who, for almost 44 years, lived alone in a 6 by 9-foot concrete box: America’s longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner! 

It’s all told in his book, Solitary, published just two years ago and now a Pulitzer finalist. 

Woodfox was released 5 years ago this month, on his 69th birthday...43 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. 

What I really want to stress, as I did yesterday, is that Solitary confinement is torture. 

Writer Pilkington says that, in his book, Woodfox explains how he preserved his sanity: 

He immersed himself in prison library books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey. He studied law for his appeals. He organised math tests and spelling bees, played chess and checkers, shouting quiz questions and board moves through the bars of his cell to fellow solitary prisoners down the tier. His proudest achievement was teaching another inmate to read. 

“Our cells were meant to be death chambers but we turned them into schools, into debate halls,” Woodfox told me. “We used the time to develop the tools that we needed to survive, to be part of society and humanity rather than becoming bitter and angry and consumed by a thirst for revenge.” 

Well, thankfully, Albert Woodfox survived, and I hope he wins the Pulitzer. But you just know there’s some damage to the man’s mind. He says he’s feeling long-term damage inflicted by those conditions...conditions the UN have denounced as psychological torture. 

Citizens for Prison Reform is to be commended for efforts to reduce solitary confinement in Michigan prisons. We may not treat people this way. 

As for Angola, I’m in no position to say that Christianity did or did not make an impact on lives of prisoners. 

It certainly didn’t on the life of Albert Woodfox.